Dutch Culture,  Expat Life

How to celebrate Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is a famous annual festival celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5. The Sinterklaas season starts in mid-November with the arrival of Sinterklaas on the first Saturday after November 11 (Sint Maarten), followed by a period of putting a shoe in front of the fireplace until the party itself.

When we talk about Dutch culture and specific things that belong to this country, we think directly of Sinterklaas. It’s not Santa Claus but Sinterklaas. The figure of Santa Claus is largely based on the Dutch Sinterklaas. There are some differences, however. 

I will try to help you understand Dutch culture a little bit better, that’s why I especially want to tell you about how the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas and how you can prepare your children for all the festivities that this party entails.

Who is Sinterklaas?

Saint Nicholas is the main character of the Sinterklaas party, which is celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5. Saint Nicholas is based on the bishop Nicholas of Myra, a Greek saint who lived in Lycia in the third century AD in modern-day Turkey. He died on December 6, 342. Later this day became his name day.

The current celebration of the Sinterklaas party stems from the picture book Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ from 1850 by teacher Jan Schenkman, who lived from 1806-1863. He was the first to send Saint Nicholas from Spain. According to him, Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Spain. This teacher also introduced the servant who would later be called ‘Piet’ and the steamboat with which he came to the Netherlands.

Saint Nicholas is usually presented as a stately old man with a white beard and white hair, wearing a red miter and cloak. He rides on a white horse called ‘Ozosnel’ and has several helpers who we call ‘Pieten.’

sinterklaas

If we briefly summarize this, Saint Nicholas comes by boat from Spain together with his Pieten and his horse and brings presents.

What do we celebrate during Sinterklaas?

The best answer to this is that we commemorate the anniversary of the death of Saint Nicholas, who has his name day on December 6.

 

However, the children are told that Saint Nicholas celebrates his birthday on December 6, giving all the children presents.

Which countries celebrate Sinterklaas?

Sinterklaas is also celebrated outside the Netherlands in:

Belgium

Germany

Aruba

Some small things are different about how these countries celebrate Sinterklaas.

gifts sinterklaas

Traditions that belong to Sinterklaas!

Intocht (arrival) van Sinterklaas

The national arrival of Saint Nicholas is broadcast on national television. This is always on the first Saturday after November 11. Saint Nicholas and his helpers arrive by boat from Spain and often continue on horse or foot.

 

The local arrivals are usually the same weekend as the national arrivals. Where possible, Saint Nicholas also arrives here by boat and continues his way by horse or walking past all the children and their parents. During this parade, traditional candy is distributed by all the ‘Pieten’, and children are singing Sinterklaas songs.

 

This is the official signal for children that they can put their shoes ready from that moment on.

Putting your shoe in front of the fireplace

The oldest Sinterklaas custom is to put your shoe in front of the fireplace. In the Netherlands, this has been done since at least the 15th century when the poor put their shoes in the church, and wealthy citizens put money in it, distributed among the poor.

 

It is believed that they started placing the shoe in living rooms in the 16th century. The children fill their shoes with oats and straw. The parents replace this with apples, biscuits, raisins, or money late at night. Later, this was replaced for toys, candy, gingerbread nuts, spice nuts, marzipan, or speculaas.

 

The story goes that naughty children were beaten with the rod or even taken to Spain in the sack of Saint Nicholas.

A sweet tradition

Sinterklaas is a feast with many sweets. Especially for the period around Sinterklaas, some typical candy that we call ‘strooigoed’ is handed out on the street or is scattered inside by the pieten.

 

‘Strooigoed’ contains gingerbread nuts, spice nuts, little meringues, and sugar confections and looks like the picture.

strooigoed sinterklaas

Singing Sinterklaas songs

Singing to Saint Nicholas is one of the most important customs associated with this celebration. Kids will sing songs during the arrival of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands, when kids put their shoes at the fireplace and at the start of ‘Pakjesavond,’ which is on December 5.

Sinterklaas evening or ‘Pakjesavond’

Sinterklaas evening, also known as ‘Pakjesavond,’ is held on or around December 5th and is often celebrated with the family. Sinterklaas songs are played and sung this evening while Saint Nicholas and his helpers visit the children at home with a bag full of presents or deliver the gifts to the door.

 

When children are still very young, they put their shoes in front of the fireplace and find the gifts when they wake up in the morning.

Wishlist

In the run-up to Sinterklaas, you will find magazines with gift ideas in the various toy stores. These books are ideal for making wish lists. Let the children cut out their wishes and stick them on to a piece of paper. These lists are put in the shoe so Piet can take the wishlist and give it to Saint Nicholas.

December 6

According to the story, Saint Nicholas will return to Spain on December 6 early in the morning. Most elementary schools will give the children a day off if December 6 is on a weekday.

sinterklaas kruidnoten

Some helpful Tips

There are companies where you can hire Saint Nicholas and Piets to come to your home.

 

It is also very common to ask an acquaintance or neighbor to put the bag of gifts at the door and then knock on the door loudly. Make sure they are gone before the children open the door.

 

At Albert Heijn, you can get the free toy book from Bol.com in the weeks before Sinterklaas with lots of ideas. On the bol.com website, you will also find gift ideas ranked by children’s age. Take a look at this website for lovely Sinterklaas gifts.

 

Another great idea for the smallest ones is a costume of a Piet. Click here for some ideas.

What exactly is a ‘surprise’?

A surprise is a craft that can be an object, a thing, or a subject.

 

Teenagers and adults often make ‘surprises’ for Sinterklaas evening. You draw a ticket with a name on it. For that person, you buy a gift and make a ‘surprise.’ You hide the present in the ‘surprise.’ Everything is possible and allowed, and you can use all the materials you want. 

 

It’s fun when you try to make something that relates to the person you’re making it for. Think of a profession, hobbies, a sport, or a characteristic of that person.

 

Most of the time, they will also ask you to write a poem with this surprise. You can write about the person’s hobbies, sports, work, or the ‘surprise’ you made and the gifts the person asked for.

Typical things that belong to Sinterklaas

Pepernoten – Dutch spiced ginger nuts

Speculaas – Brown spiced biscuit

Marsepein – Marzipan (made from almonds and sugar)

Chocolate letters – Letters made from chocolate.

You can buy the letter of the person’s first name or you buy the ‘S’ from Sinterklaas.

Mandarijnen – small oranges

Banket letter – A letter made from puff pastry filled with almond paste

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Was this helpful? Let me know.

I hope this article will help you understand the celebration of this typical dutch party a little bit better. Please let me know how you experienced this celebration in the Netherlands and what you did with your kids or friends.

 

We wish you all a joyful Sinterklaas celebration.

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